With such unseasonably balmy weather of late, it's easy to picture oneself on a tropical island, under the shade of a coconut palm. But even if the mercury does eventually head south, a taste of the tropics remains as close as the nearest supermarket. Though rarely touted in weekly circulars, or piled high on end caps to tempt consumer's appetites, fresh coconut is in ever-ready supply, peaking from September through April.
"It's one of the top tropical products," said Marcos Rodas, sales manager for J & C Enterprises, Inc., an importer and distributor of tropical produce based in Miami, Fla. Presently, J & C is bringing in brown coconuts from the Dominican Republic, along with green coconuts from Florida and Costa Rica, prized by Latin American and Asian customers for the refreshing juice they contain. To make the task of cracking open a coconut less daunting, his company also markets "EZ Open" coconuts -- that is, coconuts that have been scored around their circumference for easier splitting and shrink-wrapped to help retain their moisture.
Precut, flaked coconut is an even more convenient option, and that also is readily available, no matter the season. Each month, 200 to 300 thousand pounds of desiccated coconut from the Philippines, in the form of chips, flakes, and shreds, arrive at International Coconut Corporation in Elizabeth. About 95 percent of the lot comes treated with sodium metabisulfite to prevent the coconut from yellowing, explained Richard Kesselhaut, president of the firm and the son of its founder, Arthur Kesselhaut.
At the 12,000-square-foot facility, most of the coconut is mixed with confectioners' sugar, water, and propylene glycol (to retain moisture while inhibiting mold) to make sweetened coconut that ends up in foods ranging from Entenmann's baked goods to the Houston's restaurant chain's Thai salad. Kesselhaut also distributes toasted coconut from the Philippines, as well as unsweetened, preservative-free coconut, favored by health-food stores and companies such as David's Cookies in Fairfield.
"We're the largest, privately owned processor of sweetened coconut in the United States. We probably do six to eight million pounds of sweetened coconut a year," said Kesselhaut. "The American public still has a steady taste for coconut. Sales have spiked up in the last year or two, probably eight to 12 percent." Kesselhaut attributes that jump to Internet sales via his web site (www.internationalcoconut.com) and to the increase in the nation's Asian and Latin American populations, who are accustomed to using coconut in a multitude of sweet and savory dishes.
"I think, really, either you love it or you hate it. There's no middle ground on the product," said Kesselhaut. In his own Livingston home, his three children, ages 7 to 13, like coconut; his wife doesn't. Yet, he maintains, "It's something that's not going away. It's still strong on the American palate."
At Sea Crest by the Sea, a bed and breakfast in Spring Lake, coconut is represented in the macaroons that are a staple at afternoon tea, said Michael Jefferis, the innkeeper. Sweetened coconut flakes that have been lightly pan toasted are sprinkled atop piña colada-style French toast, in which croissants are dipped in a mixture of eggs, cream, chopped pineapple, and piña colada mix before being baked in a casserole dish, he added.
At Houston's Restaurant in Hackensack, oven-toasted coconut is added to a Thai salad that pairs Asian noodles with spicy marinated beef. "The coconut adds a little bit of sweetness to balance the heat of the salad," noted Dan Bucher, the restaurant's general manager. In Thai cuisine, jasmine rice is traditionally cooked in coconut milk (made by grinding fresh peeled coconut with boiling water and then squeezing the liquid through cheesecloth) or in equal parts canned unsweetened coconut milk and water, with a touch of ginger and salt and garnished with pan-toasted coconut flakes.
Savvy chefs use coconut as much for texture as they do for flavor, particularly in seafood coatings, salads, and dessert toppings, and are looking for bold new ways to complement its tropical taste.
"On most mainstream restaurant menus, to appeal to a wider customer base, the classic coconut shrimp is still paired with traditional sweeter dipping sauces like orange marmalades, mango/pineapple chutneys, and sweet-and-sour sauces. But that may change as more trendsetting chefs are opting for spicier accompaniments like chile-coconut milk sauces, using poblano, habanero and even chipotle for a Latin American spin, and chutneys made of coconut, chile and cilantro, to mimic the flavors of hot Thai curries. Chefs are also upping the flavor profile of traditional coconut-crusted items like chicken breast by incorporating spices like chile powder and coriander into the coconut 'crust,'" noted Cathy Nash Holley, publisher and editor-in-chief of "Flavor & The Menu" magazine in Freeport, Maine.
"On the sweet side, coconut is showing up more in the revival of nostalgic cakes and pies, but also to bring flavor, texture and a sense of comfort to newer soft desserts like compotes, mousses, pots de crème and custards, in the form of a creamy coconut base or toasted coconut flakes," she added. "In desserts, coconut is most often paired with pineapple and banana flavors, but we're now seeing coconut pair up with 'newer' tropical varieties like yuzu and passion fruit, as well as more indulgent flavors, like chocolate and caramel, in sauces or mousses."
When shopping for fresh coconut, consumers should select those that are heavy for their size and give them a shake. They should hear a good amount of coconut water (also properly known as coconut juice, not milk) sloshing around inside. The three "eyes" at the end of the coconut should be dry. In "Field Guide to Produce" (Quirk Books, 2004), Aliza Green recommended baking the coconut to shrink the flesh away from its shell, making it easier to clean. I recently tried it, and it worked. Here's how:
1. Using an awl, screwdriver, or other sturdy, sharp tool, poke open at least two of the three eyes.
2. Set the coconut over a sturdy glass and allow it to drain. (If desired, strain the juice and serve immediately over ice. The liquid should be sweet. If it is off-tasting, discard both the liquid and the coconut.)
3. Bake the whole drained coconut at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes.
4. Remove from the oven and tap the shell with a hammer until it cracks open. Insert a thin icing spatula or sturdy knife between the shell and the meat, which should easily separate.
5. If desired, remove the dark brown skin off the white flesh with a vegetable peeler. Cut into desired sizes, or shred with a box grater.